Throughout all the years of my involvement with the Church, the parish has been taken as the crucial ecclesial institution. Talk to almost anyone involved in Catholic ministry over the past 50 years and you will hear ample criticism of lots of aspects of Church life, but you will, almost without exception, hear praise of the parish. I think here of Fr Andrew Greeley’s lyrical evocations of the parish as a uniquely successful social and religious institution.
Certainly within the context of diocesan priesthood, parish work is the unquestioned default position. Ministry outside the parochial setting – hospital work, seminary work, teaching, administration, etc – is acceptable, but it is generally seen as not quite what a diocesan priest ought to be doing. I think it’s fair to say that the overwhelming amount of our money, time, energy and personnel go into the maintenance of parish structures.
Now please don’t misunderstand me: I love the parish and believe in its importance passionately. Worship, instruction in discipleship, the building up of the community, formation for mission – all of this happens typically within the parish. I did full-time parish work for several years, and I’ve been involved in numerous parishes for the full 32 years of my priesthood. Now as a regional bishop in the largest archdiocese in the United States, I supervise and regularly visit roughly 40 parishes. However, I do wonder whether, given the unique demands of our time, it might be wise to ask a few questions about our overstressing of the parish.
Survey after survey has shown that the number of “nones”, or the religiously unaffiliated, is increasing dramatically in the US. Whereas in the early 1970s, those claiming no religion was around three per cent, today it is close to 25 per cent. And among the young, the figures are even more alarming: 40 per cent of those under 40 have no religious affiliation, and fully 50 per cent of Catholics under 40 claim to be nones. For every one person who joins the Catholic Church today, roughly six are leaving. And even those who identify as Catholic are spending very little time in and around parishes.
Most studies indicate that perhaps 20 to 25 per cent of baptised Catholics attend Mass on a regular basis, and the numbers of those receiving the sacraments – especially baptism, confirmation, marriage – are in noticeable decline.
Furthermore, objective analysis reveals – and I can testify from a good deal of personal experience – that a tiny fraction of the already small percentage who attend Mass typically participate in parish programmes of education, social service and spiritual renewal. The point – and again, this is to say absolutely nothing against those who do wonderful work within the parish – is that perhaps we should reconsider our priorities and focus, above all, on active evangelisation, the great mission ad extra.
Pope Francis memorably told us to “get out of the sacristies and into the streets”, and to go “to the existential margins”. Especially in our Western context, the streets and the existential margins are where we find the nones. Two or three generations ago, we could trust that many people (Catholics certainly) would come to our institutions – schools, seminaries and parishes – to be evangelised, but we absolutely cannot assume that today.
But yet we still seem to devote most of our money, time and attention to the maintenance of these institutions and their programmes. Might it not be wiser to redirect our energies, money and personnel outward, so that we might move into the space where the un-evangelised, the fallen-away, the unaffiliated dwell?
My humble suggestion is that a serious investment in social media and the formation of an army of young priests specifically educated and equipped to evangelise the culture through these means would be a desideratum. But that’s a subject for another column.
The last time Cardinal Francis George addressed the priests of Chicago, at a convocation about nine months before his death, he made a prophetic remark. He told the Chicago presbyterate that, at the beginning of the Church, there were no dioceses, no schools, no seminaries and no parishes. But there were evangelists. He said that, in light of our present challenges, this is worth thinking about. He was right.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. This article first appeared at wordonfire.org